Helping Children Pronounce the /f/ SoundAbby Barnes, M.S., CCC-SLP
One of the more common speech errors for younger children is difficulty pronouncing the /f/ sound. While it can be cute to hear “toddler talk,” this type of speech shouldn’t last forever. As children grow, they should be in a constant state of improving their speech production.
Here we’ll discuss the importance of clear speech, why kids may struggle with the /f/ sound, when speech therapy may be needed, and how it can help.
Why clear speech matters for children
Most children go through a time period when certain speech sounds are more difficult for them than others. It’s quite rare for a toddler to say all consonants correctly when they first begin talking!
But as children get older, some of these errors should begin to resolve. By age 3 years, 11 months, a child should be able to pronounce the /f/ sound correctly in their everyday speech. Children should be able to say all consonants and vowels correctly by the time they enter kindergarten.
Clear speech matters for several reasons. One of the biggest ones is safety. It’s easy for family members to get used to how a child talks. Even if your kiddo makes many speech errors, you likely know what they’re saying! But if a child is ever in an emergency situation, they may need to communicate with someone who isn’t used to hearing them talk, like a store worker or a police officer. Being understood is incredibly important in a situation like this.
It’s also important to work toward clearer speech simply because the sooner you correct these errors, the less of a habit they’ll become. A child who has only pronounced a sound incorrectly for a year or two will likely have an easier time fixing it than an older child who's been saying the sound incorrectly for many years.
Finally, clear speech matters more than ever when a child starts school. They’ll be surrounded by friends and peers who may point out their speech errors, which can hurt a child’s confidence and cause negative feelings toward speaking. Children will also be communicating with teachers and other adults, and they need to be able to share their thoughts, needs, and opinions during the school day. The sooner we can address any issues with speech clarity, the better!
Why is /f/ a hard sound for kids to pronounce?
The /f/ sound is different from many other sounds. It requires the top teeth to rest on the bottom lip, while air is blown slightly out of the mouth. This is a lot of coordination needed for one sound! It’s easy to see why some kids have a hard time with it.
Some children may produce a /p/ or /b/ sound in substitution for an /f/. So the word “fun” may sound like “pun” or “bun.” You also may hear an /h/ substitution, where “fun” would be pronounced as “hun.”
Why can’t some children pronounce the /f/ sound?
Errors with /f/ sound production are related to an articulation disorder or a phonological disorder.
An articulation disorder is caused by an incorrect learning of the motor movement needed for the /f/ sound. This is similar to when a child has trouble learning the /l/ sound or the “TH” sound. Some sounds are easier for children than others, so the types of sounds they struggle with can vary.
Phonological disorders are related to difficulty saying groups of sounds that are similar. In the speech and language world, the /f/ sound is called a “fricative.” Other fricatives include /v/, /s/, /z/, “TH,” “SH,” and “ZH.”
If a child replaces any of these fricative sounds with a “stop” sound, like /p/, /b/, /d/, /t/, /k/, or /g/, and the error occurs across several of fricatives, we would say that the child has a phonological disorder called “stopping.” Essentially the child is stopping the airflow needed for a fricative sound. Phonological disorders are pattern-like, where speech errors fit a specific characteristic.
When is speech therapy needed for the /f/ sound?
If your child is 3 years old and you are not seeing improvement with this sound, it’s a good idea to contact a speech therapist for an evaluation. The sooner therapy begins, the sooner your child can start making progress!
During the evaluation, the speech therapist will assess your child’s speech errors and decide how speech therapy should be approached. They may begin working on just the /f/ sound by itself. Or, if your child is ready, they may begin by targeting the /f/ sound in words.
The speech therapist will create a treatment plan with goals specific to your child’s current needs. They will keep track of your child’s progress by measuring their percentages of accuracy, as well as how much help is needed to get them to the correct sound production.
How long does speech therapy take?
The length of time a child is in speech therapy can vary for many reasons. If a child is only working on /f/ production and they’re responding well to treatment, they may only be in therapy for a few months. If a child has many sounds to work on, or they have other underlying language or genetic disorders, they will likely be in therapy longer.
One thing you can do to speed up the length of time in therapy is to help your child practice, practice, practice! Many people think that progress only happens in actual speech therapy sessions, but that’s not the case. The more a child can practice outside of their therapy session, the more the correct sound production is reinforced. They’ll maintain what they learn with their speech therapist week to week, and they’ll likely progress through speech treatment more quickly.
Techniques to practice the /f/ sound
One of the best tools speech therapists use with kiddos for /f/ production is a mirror. When a child watches themselves say a sound in a mirror, they can see what their mouth is or isn’t doing. If a child is saying a /p/ sound instead of an /f/, the speech therapist can point out that the child’s teeth are not showing, and that the top teeth need to be placed on the bottom teeth.
The speech therapist can also model the correct production for the child to watch. Watching others model speech sounds, where a child can really focus on the physical production of the sound, is an important part of learning to correct speech errors.
A speech therapist may also use a tactile cue, such as touching the child’s lips with a gloved finger, or even physically moving the child’s teeth and lips to form the correct production. The speech therapist can teach the child’s caregiver to do this as well. Sometimes children need tactile cues if watching and listening just isn’t working.
If you’re concerned that your child’s speech isn’t clear, reach out to a speech therapist today! There is no reason to wait. It may feel a little overwhelming to start this process, but rest assured that speech therapists dedicate their lives to helping children with issues like these. Getting your child the support they need as early as possible will help them learn to communicate clearly and confidently.